The UK government and water regulators may have broken the law over untreated sewage discharges made last year, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has said today.
The watchdog launched an investigation in June 2022 after receiving a complaint alleging failures to comply with legal duties relating to monitoring and enforcement of water companies’ management of sewage.
These “possible failures” were made by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency and Ofwat in relation to the regulation of combined sewer overflows (CSOs).
Discharges should generally only be allowed in exceptional circumstances, such as during unusually heavy rainfall, and serve an important purpose, as they prevent sewage backing up into people’s homes when the network is overloaded.
However, they harm freshwater, coastal and marine environments, and “it appears that the public authorities may have interpreted the law differently, permitting such discharges to occur more often,” the OEP’s chief regulatory officer, Helen Venn, said.
“We think there may have been misinterpretations of some key points of law," she continued. "Clarifying this point will ensure future efforts to improve water quality are built on a solid foundation."
The watchdog has issued notices to Defra, the Environment Agency and Ofwat, which have two months to respond, before any proposed remedial action or practical measures to address issues are taken.
Venn acknowledged that “a great deal” is being done to tackle untreated sewage discharges, such as the government’s Plan for Water and storm overflow targets, and said that the OEP “will consider the responses from all three public authorities in detail before deciding next steps.”
Reacting to the news, Philip Dunne, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said that historic interpretations of law and guidance "may have led to perverse outcomes" by damaging the environment rather than protecting it, as intended.
He continued: "It has been evident for some time that regulation and enforcement has been failing our rivers and all those who use them.
"The OEP's announcement today is a welcome step towards remedying regulatory failure and improving the health of England's waterways."
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